There are certain strands of contemporary music making that I don't spend a lot of time swimming in. Compositions built around shifting fields of textures is one — I am a melodist at heart, and such pieces often pass right over my head, leaving me mostly unmoved. Every now and again, tho, one comes along that is so skillfully, deftly done that it breaks thru, and in those moments I feel like I really get what this style of music is all about.
One such piece is Aeriality by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir*. Thorvaldsdóttir was born in 1977 in Borgarnes, a small town outside of Reykjavík, and began to fall in love with music at the age of five when her mother took her to the opera. She can't remember what the performance was, but she can remember happily attempting to conduct it from her seat. After experimenting with a number of instruments, she began studying the cello at the age of 12, and quickly fell in love with it. By the age of 19, she was writing her own compositions, tho she was at first very hesitant to show them to anyone, let alone have them played in concert. With some gentle coaxing from John Speight, she got over this and decided that composing really was what she wanted to do.
Rather than stay in Iceland for her advanced studies, she moved all the way to San Diego to study at UCSD, ultimately earning both a Master's and a PhD there. She credits period of study with transforming her musical language and giving her room to let her voice develop and resonate. As her career began to take off, she moved back to Iceland, both for personal reasons and because it's a convenient midway point between her concerts in the USA and those in Europe. She is currently working on a chamber opera set to be premièred later this year in Germany.
Very little happens on the surface of Aeriality (2010 – 11), and that's very much the point. A sudden sharp shock launches the piece, long sustained tones holding open a vast and murky space in which short fragments of what could be melodic lines shudder and ripple, always just out of sight. After a few more jolts, the foundation cracks, and we wind up in a darker, more dissonant space. Here, too, there are twitching fragments, but less fluid than before — these are shudderings and tremblings, not the idle whirlings from before. Perhaps it is less like drifting thru a yawning chasm, and more like watching water seep thru the smallest cracks in rock, like being the water and seeping, seeping, slowly and with no agenda, but inexorably nevertheless.
A sudden calm falls, and the music once more lands on a consonant chord, tho one that is quickly clouded by clashing accretions. A drum kit stutters disconnectedly in the background as tones continue to accumulate, huddling together like penguins for warmth. Indeed, so densely do they cling together that they seep into the cracks between the tones, a microtonal sea of grey that ebbs back to reveal a vision of warmth and light, a magnificent structure of glowing crystals, a monument unexpected in these dark, cold depths. But as quickly as it appeared, it fades away, they grey wash returning to run over everything.
Lingering tendrils lick and curl, but the fog gradually clears to reveal another long, pure unison. There are a few last dissonant twitchings to work out, but unlike before, the fundament remains strong, and the piece ebbs into silence in peace.
*I'm using this transliteration of her name because it's what she uses on her website and my keyboard is not very excited about typing in Icelandic, but the original orthography does use the thorn character: Þorvaldsdóttir. If this is erroneous I would appreciate corrections; I know effectively nothing about the Icelandic language.